Everyone's a Critic!


Levels of Perception: Talk to Her (2002)

I don't take the movies seriously, and anyone who does is in for a headache.

- Bette Davis


A minor chord typically evokes an overly-sentimental feeling, giving listeners almost no control over their reactions even though they may not really like the music they are hearing.  In the same way, a particular narrative device in a movie may have a similar effect on its viewers by not allowing them complete control over their emotional reactions.  Whether the feelings induced are positive (that is, ones that are felt by the spectators to be relevant) or negative (those felt to be deceptive) will depend a great deal on the mood and situation of the onlookers.  The particular emotional responses that a viewer displays generally need to be ones sanctioned by the audience (for example, viewers try not to laugh when the baby dies, nor to applaud Hitler).  Is meaning to be replaced by feeling in these cases?  Not at all - meaning is one of the layers on offer and peeling away the sentiment can reveal it to the viewer.

Talk to Her is a poignant tale of an ethical dilemma whose compounding facts are revealed to us by alterations in the flow of time.  The story goes forward and backward as necessary to reveal what leads to each woman’s accident and what causes each of the men to be involved.  On three occasions the movie skips forward - for months, for weeks, then again for months.  Each of these alterations in time shows us a development in the relationship between Lydia and Marco.  But it is the five flashbacks which cause the greatest emotional disturbances.  The first and second flashbacks (actually a flashback within a flashback) disclose important nuances in the relationship between Lydia and Marco.  However, it is the next two flashbacks, one informing us of something about the relationship between Alicia and Benigno and the other revealing something about the relationship between Lydia and Marco, that show us that we did not know what we thought we did and consequently we are left unsure why we feel as we do.  The final flashback of Benigno writing his farewell note to Marco, on the other hand, increases our understanding.

Our first real information about Benigno shows him to be a sensitive and caring nurse.  Giving a patient (a comatose one at that) a manicure and hand massage goes beyond what one customarily expects even from a high level of nursing care.  Benigno’s conversation with Alicia shows that he has come to think of himself as her friend.  A scene soon follows which reveals Benigno and another nurse, Rosa, inspecting and cleansing Alicia’s breasts and genital area.  Rosa wears latex gloves but Benigno does not.  Benigno wants that contact with Alicia - we later learn that it keeps him alive as much as it does her.  Dressing Alicia is a well-coordinated ritual - and she emerges from their ministrations looking gift-wrapped.

Very close shots are utilised throughout this movie - the main characters are in focus but the backgrounds generally are not, giving us the clear message that this movie relies on people more than on setting.  The backgrounds are mostly pattern-free and color-coordinated so that they soothe and do not distract.

The closeness of the camera to the characters enlightens us as to the intensity of their feelings.  For example, the first time Lydia and Marco are together in a car, the camera switches back and forth between them, only showing them in the same frame when the car is stopped.  The next day, when the two of them are out shopping and getting to know each other better, they are framed together in the car from the chest up.  When in the car again several months later, they are framed together, a tight close up, faces only, showing us that they have drawn closer, both physically and emotionally.

The graceful forward flow of the narrative experiences turbulence with a flashback wherein the gentle Benigno is revealed to have met Alicia before her coma.  He is shown as smitten, a voyeur, a stalker, and as stealing a hairclip from her bedroom.  He is spied by Alicia, naked, just out of her shower and he frightens her.  This flashback begins on the balcony of Alicia’s hospital room as the camera zooms in on Alicia’s ear, perhaps indicating that she can hear this story as Benigno tells it to Marco.  Further, we return from the flashback with the camera on her face - she must have heard (see Buried Alive in Your Own Skull for a discussion of this possibility) - perhaps we have even seen what she imagines as she hears Benigno along with us.

The ongoing conversation between Marco and Benigno reveals Benigno’s belief that "words can protect."  Could it be Benigno’s care, constant touching, and flow of words which keep Alicia alive?  For four years he has bathed Alicia and caressed her naked body with all-consuming intensity.

Benigno has apparently only loved bedridden women in his life.  His mother, he feels, loved him because he took care of her, and he may think that this surely causes Alicia to love him as well - as perhaps it does.  That he can accept prolonged unconsciousness as a norm is shown when he sees Lydia and says, "This woman isn’t well."  He was not referring, as most people would, to her vegetative state, but rather to the fact that her skin was dry.

Marco and Lydia

The next-to-last flashback takes us back to the wedding that Marco and Lydia attend immediately before her accident in the bullring.  Marco realises at the wedding of his old girlfriend to her new sweetheart that he no longer loves Angela - he is now free to love Lydia and to make plans for their future together.  Lydia listens, and then tells Marco urgently, "We must talk."  They decide to talk after the fight - but, of course, they never have that chance.

After several weeks, Lydia’s old boyfriend shows up at her hospital room, suddenly fervent with love for her.  El Niño tells Marco that he and Lydia were back together for a month before her accident.  This, he says, is what she had wanted to talk to Marco about that fateful day.  Is this true or a lonely man’s fantasy?  In the flashback, the camera seems to deny El Niño’s words because, during their last car ride together, it frames Marco and Lydia in their tightest close up of all.  Marco, however, leaves - perhaps because he is unaware of the implications that the camera has revealed to us.

The final movement forward in time is to a point eight months after Marco’s departure.  Marco learns that Lydia has died without regaining consciousness.  We wonder: Is what killed Lydia the fact that Marco left her with El Niño (who very likely later abandoned her)?  If Marco had cared for Lydia the way Benigno cared for Alicia, might she have lived?  This question cannot be answered.

Later, only Marco visits Benigno in jail.  Alicia’s psychiatrist father labels Benigno a psychopath but it is clear that he is not - rather than lacking in empathy, he has far too much.  He feels his love for Alicia is mutual.  As Marco talks to Benigno, the camera frames Benigno’s haggard face with the reflection of a window - the window’s bars provide a poignant comment on just how hopelessly caged he now feels.  He has been kept alive only by his uncertainty about Alicia’s fate - an uncertainty caused by those bars which constrict him.

Marco adopts Benigno's point of view when he moves into Benigno's apartment.  From the balcony, just as Benigno had done, Marco sees Alicia at the ballet academy.

The child, we are told, is still-born, but we wonder: does the baby indeed die?  If so, is this only because Benigno is not there to properly massage Alicia and exercise her body?  Or, conversely, is finally being free of the terrifying stalker and rapist who was always in her room what allows Alicia to awaken from her coma?  Or even, as some medical literature documents, is the birth of the baby what brings Alicia out of her comatose state?  (The fœtus is a source of stem-cells which can repair injured tissue - even in the brain.)  If this is the case, the departure of Benigno is a double tragedy, as it may be his absence that causes her neglected leg muscles to deteriorate to the point where she can now no longer dance, and even requires a cane to walk.

A montage of jail scenes over Benigno’s voice message to Marco shows cement and barbed wire - what Benigno’s life has become.  Before, the bars of the jail were shown as a reflection, but they now dominate the camera.

In the flashback of Benigno writing his farewell letter to Marco, we see a photo of Benigno’s mother as a bride (the part depicting her husband torn away) placed right next to a photo of the comatose Alicia.  His mother looks amazingly like Alicia.  Benigno writes, "Wherever they take me, come and … talk to me.  Tell me everything."  We return from the flashback to a wide shot of Marco crying in the warden’s office and, uncharacteristically, the camera has a deep focus.  Everything is sharp and crisp - this is the new reality.

Benigno tells Marco to tell him everything, so Marco does.  At the foot of Benigno’s grave (a sheltered place of great beauty), Marco tells him: "You woke her up."  Lydia has died and Alicia has awakened at roughly the same time - the difference is that Lydia was alone but Alicia was not - she had Benigno’s baby growing inside her.

Near the end of the movie, we hear K D Lang singing.  This is noteworthy for several reasons.  First, the song is in English while the rest of the movie is in Spanish.  There are no subtitles for the words to this song provided to the viewer in any language.  Finally, a dancer on the stage appears to be singing, but it soon becomes clear that the song she is singing is not at all the song we are hearing.  And what words do we hear?  "We made love last night / Wasn't good wasn't bad / Intimate strangers made me kinda sad / Now when I woke up this morning / Coffee wasn't on / It slowly dawned on me that my baby is gone / My baby's gone."

This is not what the dancer is singing - this is a message to us: Alicia woke up when she realised that her baby was gone.  (Was the baby Benigno? Or the infant?)

At the intermission, the camera alternates between Alicia and Marco, sitting opposite each other.  The future for Marco and Alicia is heavy with possibility.  Back in the theatre, when Marco turns around to look at Alicia seated behind him, they are separated by a conspicuously empty chair (symbolic of Benigno - who, then as now, connects rather than separates them.  Suddenly Alicia is bathed in white light - the stuff of miracles.  They smile at each other - we suddenly feel that Alicia knows.

As we gaze at this film, we see that, like Alicia and like Lydia, it is lovely, with backgrounds of pure warm colours - simple and beautiful on the surface.  But, like the final words spoken by Katerina, the ballet mistress, "…nothing is simple."  On initial viewing, we are left to ponder why what we think is not the same as what we feel about what we have just seen.  However, as with any great film, watching the film again, taking the time to peel back the layers of emotion, allows the meanings to become clearer and the feelings to become more positive.

Katrina and Alicia

The French Vampire: Irma Vep (1996)

Source: pserve.club.fr/Irma_Vep_aff.html

Over the past few decades there has been a dramatic increase in the number of postmodernist films.  These avant-garde movies employ a variety of techniques which set them apart from the norm.  One such technique is the concept of self-referentiality - a feedback loop wherein the act of commenting generates further comments on one’s own commentary.  This technique is used subtly and skillfully in Irma Vep.  As is obvious from the very beginning, this is a movie about making a movie and it is self-referential to that extent.  However, it also includes commentary by the characters, and in some cases by the actors, regarding their views on French cinema.  Additionally, the director of the movie-within-the-movie, René Vidal, acts as a surrogate for the director of the actual film when he expresses Assayas’ yearnings, foibles, opinions and motivations as if they were his own.  By commenting on itself in these ways, the movie makes use of a camera so omniscient that it is able to view itself as through a mirror.  This meta-commentary acts as an additional dimension, facilitating a deeper level of meaning than what may be apparent on first viewing.  Upon subsequent viewings, we find ourselves engaged not only with the characters but with the actors themselves.

Throughout the film, there are constant references to French cinema and frequent clips from old movies are shown.  These are interspersed with the dailies from the filming that takes place in the movie.  These dailies are fully desaturated and are without sound, much like many of the old French cinema clips we see.  This suggests that when Maggie Cheung’s interviewer speaks about the self-indulgent qualities of French cinema, he is referring to older films as well as newer ones.  His argument is reinforced when we examine the film Irma Vep itself, which is a movie devoid of conventional narrative technique and which seems to have the overarching message that there is no overarching message to be found - here, or in avant-garde French cinema in general.  Indeed, the only immediately discernible reason Irma Vep has for being made is so that a woman in a latex cat-suit can be watched via a camera which is under the voyeuristic control of an admiring male director - exactly like the remake of Les Vampires that is the superficial subject of Irma Vep.

This example of the motivational components of the male gaze can also be seen in the similarities between René Vidal and the director of Irma Vep, Oliver Assayas.  During the scene in which René calls Maggie and requests that she come over to his house in the middle of the night, René explains that he is not interested in Maggie’s character so much as he is interested in Maggie herself.  While it is not literally possible for Mr Assayas to say the same thing, since Maggie Cheung played herself in the film, it is somewhat telling that Assayas and Cheung were married not long after the shooting of Irma Vep concluded.  Mr Assayas, like René, the director in the film, just wants to make a movie with Maggie Cheung in it - the exact content of the movie is secondary and much of it is ad-libbed.  (The shooting was completed in only 10 days.)

However, this film does not imply that French cinema is self-indulgent merely for the gratification of its directors.  After the conversation with René in which he states that Irma Vep is a thin, weak character with loose morals, it becomes apparent that Maggie has started identifying with her character to such an extent that a slight to the character is a slight to her as well.  Upon returning to her hotel room, the camera begins to swing wildly about her room, showing the mess, the half-eaten meals, and the half-read magazines strewn about the room.  Maggie briefly tries to sleep, but gets back up as the lyrics of a song filter through the wall from a nearby room where loud music is being played.  The lyrics of the song speak of a girl who looks into the mirror and tells herself that she is never going anywhere.  The song’s effect on Maggie shows quite clearly that she is taking René’s poor opinion of her character’s character very personally.  This is a further example of the self-referentiality which pervades the movie.  Here, a character in the film Irma Vep seems unable to distinguish herself from the character she is portraying in the remake of the Les Vampires.

In what is possibly a reaction to these lyrics, Maggie attempts to prove to herself that Irma Vep’s character is, in fact, a strong and courageous one - she dresses in her costume and begins to sneak about her hotel.  As she walks up the staircase, Assayas’ camera mimics the movement of René’s camera when it was pointed at Maggie as she played Irma Vep earlier in the day - indeed, the staircase itself looks similar and Maggie even walks like Irma Vep.  After eluding a maid and sneaking into another hotel guest’s room, Maggie steals some jewelry to the background noise of the room’s naked occupant backing down and apologising to her boyfriend on the telephone.  This brings about an interesting juxtaposition: While Maggie is at the height of her defiance to René’s insult, the other hotel guest is giving in and apologising to her male critic.  This provides a wonderful lead-in to the next scene where Maggie takes the stolen jewelry up to the roof and eventually tosses it down to the courtyard below.  Here, it becomes clear that Maggie has no interest in possessing this stolen item - she merely wishes to prove to herself that where Irma Vep was caught attempting the same type of theft, Maggie was not - Maggie is clearly superior to Irma Vep and can therefore handle those slights to Vep’s character earlier voiced by René.  Interestingly, at the same time, Maggie is in fact capitulating to director Assayas, who gets to see her up on a rooftop, dressed in a full-body latex cat-suit, in the rain.  While Maggie is showing her defiance to René, Assayas’ surrogate, she is at the same time submitting to Assayas himself.

Despite the similarities between Irma Vep and the films of French cinema that are described in such harsh language therein, Assayas’ film was well received.  The reason for this is due to its very similarity to those films - Irma Vep does indeed feature an attractive female clad in latex, and just as the director may experience a scopophilic satisfaction at viewing Maggie, so too does the audience - and the camerawork reflects this.  Throughout the film, the camera is handheld (or made to appear so) and presented in a very documentary style - except when viewing the footage of Les Vampires.  This shakiness of the camera combines with the occasional quick movements and eye-level perspective to give us a much stronger sense of actually being there than a more conventional film would provide.  This enhances the apparent reality of the remake of Les Vampires, and hence further blurs the line between the multiple levels of reality shown in Irma Vep.

The film does make good use of more static and steady shots as well.  When Maggie is being interviewed, we see her through the camera of the interviewer.  When this happens, the audience is no longer stalking her, but watches her through more accepted, legitimate modes.  Here, Maggie knows she is being watched and acts accordingly -in so doing, she makes the scenes in which she is filmed using the shakier camera seem more authentic; more representative of the "true" Maggie.  This change makes us suspect that when she disagrees with the interviewer’s poor opinion of French cinema, she may not be telling the truth.  Her opinions may well lie close to those of the interviewer, but she knows she is being watched and is consequently motivated to hide her true feelings.  Such interludes of quasi-reality, when marked by such a dramatic change in the feel of the movie, make the handheld shots seem all the more like an intimate cinéma vérité.

In the end, what we have is a woman dressed in a latex cat-suit paraded in front of multiple audiences and directors at the same time, and, as well, we have her reactions to these various audiences.  However, the only character transformation that could be said to exist in the film is Maggie’s rejection of René‘s slight to the character she is portraying in the movie-within-a-movie, which is hardly worth noting as a transformation.  Instead of transformation, the film both shows us French cinema and voices opinions about it, while incidentally providing us an excellent target for the male gaze.  Also, ironically, Irma Vep ends up actually being a movie with a vampire in it.  René Vidal clearly never had any intention of making a movie - he simply wanted to watch Maggie Cheung.  In this way, he sucked some of the blood out of his film’s backers and managed to slip away without anyone raising a fuss.  One could say that the only difference between Irma Vep and the movie-within is simply that Irma Vep is successful - possibly due to a greater conscious understanding of the techniques of audience manipulation on the part of the real director.

At the movie’s conclusion, the audience within the film sees that the director of the movie-within-a-movie has caved in and expressed his true obsessions - and consequently the film he has made seems on first viewing to be completely incomprehensible.  This is directly analogous to the fashion in which Irma Vep may at first seem incomprehensible to us upon first viewing.  However, after seeing the movie again, we begin to more fully enter into the extra dimensions provided by the film’s use of self-referentiality.  This skillful use of technique underscores the film’s true power, and makes Irma Vep a thought-provoking movie.

Facts and Interpretations: Citizen Kane (1941) versus Rashomon (1950)

At first glance, Rashomon and Citizen Kane seem structurally similar to each other and as well each explores the concept of truth.  They both use multiple narrative instantiations to tell their stories; however, the idea of truth is handled differently in each.  In Citizen Kane the narrative instantiations cover different aspects and periods of the life of Charles Foster Kane.  The accuracy of these various narrations is never called into question because the aim of the recounting is to aid in determining what truly motivated Kane, not to resolve which of the views is accurate.  In Rashomon, while each narration broadens understanding of the motivations of the participants of the event, only one of the varying accounts is factual.  Regardless of their differing emphasis on truth, besides sharing the technique of using multiple points of view of a single subject, both use sophisticated and innovative techniques to convey the salient points of their stories, and both use testimony to refine estimations of reality.


Citizen Kane is essentially a fictionalized pseudo-documentary about the life of wealthy newspaperman Charles Kane.  Through the audience’s representative, the reporter Thompson, we are taken on a journey in which we meet a variety of people, all of whom have something to offer us about Kane’s life, though none can give his entire story.  Indeed, by the end of the film, while the initial question posed has been somewhat conclusively answered, we begin to wonder if there even is a whole story - if there really is more to Kane than meets the eye, or if he was merely an empty shell of a man.  The whole truth, in this instance, is not to be known.

Rashomon, by contrast, provides more closure on the issues it raises.  While none of the accounts in Rashomon can conclusively be said to be the whole truth, by the end of the movie, we have assembled a fairly comprehensive picture of the contested events.  Finally, with the introduction of the abandoned infant in the closing scene, even the narrators themselves achieve some closure.  In the final exchange between the Woodcutter and the Priest, which culminates with the Priest’s comment, "I think I will be able to keep my faith in men," the film leaves us with the impression that perhaps the exact sequence of events does not matter so much after all, and that the final account, while perhaps not entirely accurate, is sufficient.

Points of View

In Citizen Kane, the character of Charles Foster Kane is such an enigmatic figure, with such a long and varied history, that we really need a range of perspectives to get even a semblance of the whole picture.  In Rashomon, the emphasis is also on understanding - but in this case, the uncertainty is about a single incident.  The occasion, and the various accounts of its unfolding, give us an evolving picture of the participants’ personalities, just as the narrations in Citizen Kane flesh out Kane’s personality - however, in Rashomon, the narrations are important not because of the events they described, but because of the effect these narratives have on the movie’s three main characters, the Woodcutter, the Priest, and the Peasant.

What really differentiates the points of view in Citizen Kane and Rashomon is the purpose of the narration.  In Citizen Kane, the narrators simply tell what they know of Kane; they have little motivation to lie, and even if they do, their stories are sufficiently consistent that it would not matter much.  In Rashomon, by contrast, the accuracy of the accounts, and the effect that this accuracy (or lack of it) has on the main characters is the whole story.  The first three narrations concerning the incident are by participants in the event - and each alters details to make himself or herself look as good as possible while still sounding plausible.  Finally, we get the Woodcutter’s version, which seems most truthful of all, in part because his story is the only testimony not given the dramatisation of music, and in part because he has little motivation to embellish.  Indeed, the Woodcutter’s version may be perfectly accurate - but its perfection is of little significance by that point.


In Rashomon, during the telling of the four perspectives, it is clear that pains are taken to ensure that the audience questions the accuracy of the first three accounts but does not doubt the accuracy of the retellings of these accounts - that is, any alteration of the true sequence of events is introduced by the initial participants in the incident, not by the men beneath the Rashomon Gate.  The reliance on the perfect memory of the men retelling the stories is somewhat painfully obvious in the case of the Medium, who speaks with the voice of the dead Samurai (with an echo effect applied to it), rather than her own voice.  In this manner, it is conveyed quite clearly that the account of the Samurai has lost nothing by being told by a medium in his stead.  Were the Medium to speak with her own voice, the film may have seemed more polished, but would introduce the possibility that the woman might be altering the Samurai’s account in some manner.  However, since the Samurai speaks directly, as it were, there is no doubt.

In Citizen Kane, the issue of the accuracy of the accounts is not in question.  Although in neither film is accuracy explicitly guaranteed at any point, in Citizen Kane the narrators’ sincerity receives no emphasis and thus is not important in advancing the plot.  This fact is reflected in the camerawork - unlike the camerawork in Rashomon, where the camera accentuates the subjective nature of the accounts by clinging to each narrator in a close third-person perspective, in Citizen Kane the perspective is less static, and rarely focuses on the narrator himself, but rather on one of the characters in the narration.  Indeed, in one clear example the camera is not focused on the narrator at all because the narrator is not even present.  We see Kane meet his second wife, Susan, during Jed Leland’s narration - however Leland was not present when they met.  Clearly, the camera is not constrained by the knowledge of the narrator, whereas in Rashomon, the camera essentially is the narrator.  Further, despite primarily clinging to Kane, the camera is by no means exclusively focused on him.  Though the character on which the camera focuses is always relevant to Kane’s story, in one instance the camera is not even on the same continent as Kane; rather, it is attached to a man reading a telegraph that Kane has sent.

In Rashomon, the inaccuracy of the accounts themselves forms a large part of the movie.  During the narrations, a variety of techniques are used to indicate that even though we are seeing a visual reinforcement of what is being said, we are seeing it through the eyes of the narrator.  This is clearest in the first account of the incident given by the bandit, Tajomaru.  While he tells his story, the camera tracks him almost exclusively - and in his story, he is constantly moving, running, jumping, and pacing.  He shows in his story how physically fit he is by his constant movement - but at the same time, by doing so, he causes the camera’s movements to be jerky and uneven while tracking him, accentuating the fact that this story is being told by a deranged bandit, especially when the camera goes in for an extreme close up.  Here, as in all the narrations, the camera is essentially glued to the character in a close third person perspective.  Occasionally, the camera switches back to Tajomaru as a captive for a short while so that he can comment further on what we are seeing, since there is not a voiceover.  The camera’s constant movement, the close third-person focus on Tajomaru and the occasional return to Tajomaru’s narration as a captive all artfully combine to firmly fix in our minds that this recounting is told purely from the bandit’s perspective, and that it is only as trustworthy as the word of a deranged bandit can be.

In addition, Tajomaru’s account is by no means the only one in which the camera indicates that perhaps what we are seeing is not the precise truth.  In the short narration by the woodcutter at the beginning, as he is walking through the woods, the camera moves with him constantly, revealing only the environment as he sees it.  Occasionally, the camera looks at the sky, sometimes showing the sun through a dense canopy of leaves.  In this manner, the camera indicates that what the woodcutter is seeing is shrouded in shadow - perhaps in more ways than one.

Further, in the narrations of both the wife and the Samurai, in keeping with their more sedate characters, the camera is less mobile - though it still goes in for tight close-ups on the character narrating the story.  In the account by the woman, Masago, the camera goes in for a very long, extreme close-up possibly indicating that of all the characters, she is the most self-centered by far.  Certainly that is the way it appears in the final account as told by the woodcutter.  He indicates that by her self-centeredness alone, she manages to drive away even the unclean, deranged Tajomaru as well as her own husband - and only by insulting their manhood did she get them to stay long enough to fight each other.

Citizen Kane, like Rashomon, uses camera positioning and movement to good effect.  Throughout the film, the camera constantly comments on the action.  Near the beginning of the movie, we see a log cabin surrounded by snow; the camera zooms out, and we see that it is actually a snow globe.  Later, it is in the shattered glass fragments of that same snow globe that we see the distorted reflection of the nurse when she comes in to pull a sheet over the body of the now-dead Kane - perhaps foreshadowing the somewhat distorted picture of Kane that the narrations to follow will give us.

Further, when Thompson goes to talk to Susan Kane for the first time, the camera introduces us to her by showing a close up of a billboard with her on it in a provocative pose.  As the camera swoops up to the building’s neon sign, thunder and lightning comment on the current condition of her career, which is then further reinforced as the camera looks down on her through a broken skylight.

Later, Walter Parks Thatcher is introduced in a similar way, though this time the camera is looking up at a very impressive and large statue of him, complete with identifying plaque.  A few moments later, the camera looks down on Thompson as he is instructed that he has until 4:40pm sharp and is to read just the relevant pages of Thatcher’s diary.  As he and the camera peer into the gigantic vault-like reading room, he is told to read only pages 83 - 142, after which the door is slammed right in front of the camera - thereby effectively indicating that Thompson is locked in the room with the diary, and the camera is locked out. The camera finds its way in somehow, and is soon peering over Thompson’s shoulder, trying to catch a glimpse of the diary - much like Thompson is trying to catch a glimpse of the elusive word, Rosebud.


One way in which Rashomon and Citizen Kane radically differ is in their approach to music.  In Citizen Kane, music generally indicates location, provides ambiance, and accentuates the tone of various scenes; however, at no point does it provide contrast.  Throughout the entire film, the music simply agrees with the action.  Indeed, while the score is an outstanding example of the best that the era has to offer, watching Citizen Kane with no music at all gives a similar effect to watching it with music; the film is more immersing with music, but the score does not extend the story to any great degree.

Rashomon, by contrast, uses music quite differently.  While the film does have music, the music is less of an accompaniment and more of a commentary.  In the opening scenes where the three characters meet beneath the gate, we hear only the sound of the rain.  Finally, as the woodcutter begins his story, so too does the music begin.  Here, the music is related to what is transpiring, but at the same time is almost mocking - comic even.  The music soon becomes noticeable because, in the first three stories, it bears very little relation to the actions being described.  Instead, it simply is - it is as if the scenes were supposed to be dramatic, but did not know quite how to go about it.  This lends an air of unreality to the stories of the bandit, wife, and Samurai, and to some degree to the initial story of the Woodcutter, though there the music at least acknowledges the actions in his narration to some degree.  When the camera cuts back to the three at the gate, and when the woodcutter later narrates his version of the events, however, there is no music - no dramatisation at all.  When the music starts, so too do the untruths.  When the Woodcutter at last tells his version of the incident, he is therefore assumed to be telling fact, which warrants no drama - or music.  In this manner, it becomes clear which of the stories is most accurate - though whether the story is perfectly accurate is never known for certain.


While both Citizen Kane and Rashomon deal with the subject of truth, they reach somewhat different conclusions.  In Citizen Kane, we are left with the feeling that since Kane himself could not truly understand his own motivations, how, then, could we hope to?  Rashomon, however, ends on a different note - one is left with the feeling that while exact truth can perhaps be identified, knowing perfect truth is not what is most important.  Life goes on, and as long as one can keep one’s faith in man, things will turn out all right - the rain will stop eventually.  At the end of the movie, we do not know the whole truth, but perhaps we do not care.  By the end of Citizen Kane, we know scarcely more truth about Kane’s motivations than we know the truth about the death of the Samurai by the end of Rashomon; however. Rashomon concludes with the typically Japanese idea that truth is not necessarily fact.  Citizen Kane ends with the idea that facts are not enough to constitute the truth.

To Enter One’s House Justified: Director San Peckinpah

David Samuel “Sam” Peckinpah is often remembered as a violent man who directed excessively violent films.  According to the Internet Movie Database, the release of one of his greatest films The Wild Bunch “christened the director with the nickname that would forever define his films and reputation: ‘Bloody Sam’.”  But there was much more to Sam Peckinpah than just violence, despite the impression he gave through many of his films.  Indeed, the rich and complex characters in his films are often products both of his direction and of his rewriting the script to put more humanity, and more of himself, in these characters.  Many audiences, however, do not see the characters themselves, but instead simply see the violence.

Peckinpah’s approach to violence is very often misinterpreted.  Sam self-admittedly did believe that all men were violent – but he also believed that it was society, not man’s nature, which caused this violence, and that by putting that violence on screen, it could be used constructively.  He felt that his films, rather than contributing to violence in society, instead gave men a cathartic outlet, so that there was no need to be violent in real life (Carroll).  Sadly, however, not everyone saw his films in the same light that he did, nor did they achieve the same cathartic outlet – a fact that bothered Peckinpah in later life.

Indeed, few people saw things quite the same way Sam did.  This is both what made him a great director, and also what made his life ultimately tragic.  Sam was a cowboy, with a cowboy’s mentality and a cowboy’s code.  He also was a man of excesses and extremes, constantly drinking and abusing drugs.  He, unlike many of his audience, did find a cathartic vent in his films, and he approached making films with the same intentness that the sheriff figures pursued their quarry in The Wild Bunch and Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid.  He put every fibre of his being into the films he directed, becoming in many ways the most auteur of the auteur directors.  He not only made his opinions known, but he would fire anyone not measuring up to his expectations at the drop of a hat.  He even had an assistant follow him around with bus tickets back to Hollywood in his pocket and these he ordered handed out to anyone he felt unworthy (Thurman).

As a consequence of the immense amount of work that Peckinpah put into his films, he infused his own life into the characters as well.  This was especially true in The Wild Bunch.  When Peckinpah was hired to direct The Wild Bunch, he was a man in some disgrace in Hollywood who had not directed a film in three years following the dismal failure of the studio-mangled Major Dundee.  With The Wild Bunch Sam wanted to get his foot back in the door, and as a result he dedicated his entire being to producing the perfect the film, often getting less than four hours sleep a night, falling into slumber with the script in his hand (Thurman).

With the amount of time that Peckinpah spent improving and imprinting his own character on the film, it is unsurprising that The Wild Bunch ended up being somewhat unconventional for the time.  It is important to remember that when The Wild Bunch was released, violence was not yet common in movies.  The violence in The Wild Bunch was not artificially added in because of any perceived audience expectations.  The violence is included, rather, because in Sam’s opinion that is what it meant to be a cowboy.  Violence was a part of that society, so citizens of that era just had to learn to live with and by it.  In the beginning of the movie, the outlaws get into a shootout with the law resulting in a massacre of innocent townspeople, thus showing their ruthless, evil side.  At the end of the movie, they are involved in yet another massacre after attempting to rescue their compatriot Angel – however, on this occasion, the violence is redemptive, not condemning.  This non-judgmental perspective towards violence has lead to Peckinpah being hailed as the first director to æstheticize apocalypse (Kerstein).

Another peculiarity is that The Wild Bunch is widely hailed as a tragedy – which is actually puzzling.  If one looks at the plot objectively, it is simply a band of outlaws who finally meet their end in a bloody massacre – yet by the end of the film, the audience feels a sense of deep loss when the outlaws die.  Peckinpah, through script revisions, intuitive direction, and even set improvisations, has shown the audience that these are men of honour.  They lived by their code, and they are dying by their code, like the cowboys of old did.  The outlaws in The Wild Bunch were required to die simply because nothing else would have been proper or true to their code in their circumstances.  Sam Peckinpah was the perfect man to comprehend that and to convey it artfully.  If it seems barbaric, that is because it was.  All Sam Peckinpah did was faithfully capture that barbarism and make the audience feel it – just as Sam himself felt it.  When the movie was finally finished and ready to be sent to theatres, Sam went to a corner of a soundstage and wept (Thurman).

This faithful capture of how he himself perceived the world was both one of Peckinpah’s strengths and one of his greatest weaknesses.  Immediately after The Wild Bunch, Sam he went to work on The Ballad of Cable Hogue, a somewhat comedic quirky Old West romance.  This shift made perfect sense to Sam – he felt that he was a talented director, and he was disturbed by the nickname that The Wild Bunch had left him with; “Bloody Sam”.  He decided that The Ballad of Cable Hogue would convince audiences that he could do something that wasn’t violent, and this would show them that he had a soft side.

Unfortunately, while The Ballad of Cable Hogue is a good film, did not prove to be the success that The Wild Bunch was.  Not only had audiences come to expect ultra violence from his films, Peckinpah himself wasn’t quite as varied a director as he had believed himself to be.  When he made any film, he dedicated himself to it, imprinting himself on the very fibre of the film, and Cable Hogue was no exception – perhaps unfortunately.  Peckinpah, and consequently the camera, spends a large portion of the movie looking both down and up the leading lady’s dress whenever possible, leading to a good deal of criticism of the movie (Thurman).  When added to the repulsion that met The Wild Bunch from many moviegoers, and Cable Hogue’s lack of violence leading to unmet expectations from the rest, the film was an unmitigated box office failure.

What The Ballad of Cable Hogue did and does do beyond a shadow of a doubt, however, is belie the popular conception of Sam Peckinpah’s misogynistic tendencies.  While Cable Hogue did not enjoy the degree of financial success at the box office that he had hoped for, he himself often cited it as his favorite film (Thurman).  Some have contended that this is because his son appears in it, but others feel that it is because he, perhaps emboldened by the success of The Wild Bunch, tried something that was not part of his usual personality.  While audiences of today may see The Wild Bunch as a wildly creative movie, Sam himself regarded it more as an accurate historical portrayal – novel in its technique, perhaps, but not at all novel in its storyline.  Cable Hogue, while a more standard story by Hollywood conventions, was far from Peckinpah’s usual fare.

Ultimately, the failure of The Ballad of Cable Hogue was one of the turning points of Peckinpah’s career.  After Cable Hogue, he accused audiences of demanding less violence in films, then turning around and not watching his movies when he was responsive enough to remove it.  This, unsurprisingly, caused him to return to where he was comfortable, and where the money was: making violent films.  He soon came out with Straw Dogs – a movie based on a novel that Peckinpah himself said would cause anyone who read it to “die gagging on [their] own vomit” (Carroll).  From the man who made Cable Hogue just to show he could be nonviolent, and considering Cable Hogue’s consequent failure, this flip to the opposite extreme should seem to be perfectly logical.  But to the audiences of the time - and even to a great extent today – his shift back to violent films just served to reinforce their image of Peckinpah as a violent, unstable director.

This popular misinterpretation was especially unfortunate for Sam himself.  While he did go on to make what have been hailed as great films, it is generally agreed that few of his films come close to rivaling the sheer artistry of The Wild Bunch.  This may in part be due to Peckinpah’s gradual decline in health – but it may also be that he felt imposed upon to make his trademark violent movies. Sam Peckinpah never professed to care overly for the feelings of others, as was evidenced both by his directing style and the characters in his movies.  “Justification in Peckinpah … is internal justification” (Kerstein).  But filmmaking is a collaborative art, and in the end it is shown to an audience.  Sam himself stated about the footage cut out of The Wild Bunch that “if [a director] is so bloody that he's driving people from the theatre, he fails” (Carroll).  Yet after the failure of Cable Hogue, he made Straw Dogs – bloodier still than The Wild Bunch – and he did it in reaction to what he perceived audiences wanted from him.

Sam Peckinpah was a man that wished to be at peace with himself and he was a very independent man – but his actions were, in the end, shaped by, and ultimately intended for, the society of which he was a part. In his films, he chronicles the life of the old cowboys, and, ultimately, shows them dying violently with honoor – an experience he hoped would be cathartic to his audience.  In Ride the High Country the character Steve Judd says “All I want is to enter my house justified.”  This was Sam’s hope, and Sam’s line.  He hoped that through his films he would achieve justification for his life, and be able to gain peace with himself.

Evidently, however, Sam ultimately failed at his quest.  Though he continued making films right up until his death, his drug addiction problems became exponentially worse with his discovery of cocaine, and in his final few years he was given to violent mood swings and depression, often shooting his own image in the mirrors of his house (Kerstein).  In many ways, he seemed to have actually developed into the dangerous manic depressive that popular opinion made him out to be.

It was in this state that he co-wrote and directed what is considered to be the last of his great films, Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia – a tale about a bounty hunter who loses everything and still doesn't know when to stop.  Though it is clear that he did not entirely mean it to be the case, this film is almost autobiographical of Sam’s life - so much so, in fact, that Warren Oates, an actor who had worked closely with Peckinpah on many occasions, used him as inspiration when he played the main character, Bennie.  Indeed, he even went to the point of borrowing Sam’s sunglasses to complete his image.  Co-writer Gordon Dawson later admitted basing Bennie’s character on Peckinpah, too.  Ironically, Peckinpah was reportedly the last crew member to realise this (Thurman).

Peckinpah claimed that Alfredo Garcia was the only film over which he had had full creative control – all his other films were edited at least in part by the studio.  Despite this, however, Alfredo Garcia was a flop in its time.  It was considered to just be a blast-'em-all meditation on nihilism and the futility and inevitability of violence – which, admittedly, it largely was.

Towards the end, Sam’s life had a shape much like the characters in his movies, and he was, in many ways, viewed as a tragic figure.  He, like all his characters, spent his whole life trying to find peace with himself – and, in the end, only he can say if he succeeded.  Certainly it appears that he did not.  The man who cited The Ballad of Cable Hogue, that quirky romance featuring his own son, as his favorite movie, was most well known by his reputation as a violent drunkard.  His most popular and highest praised film is the same one that earned him the nickname that he despised, “Bloody Sam”.  His largely autobiographical film was a financial and critical failure.

“Come on, Al.  We're going home.”

Whether or not Peckinpah ever achieved peace with himself, his works are still today considered among the greatest works in filmdom and The Wild Bunch has been said to be even more innovative than the oft-praised Citizen Kane (Kerstein).  Through his films, Sam has contributed a great deal to film and art, even though he fought the studio system the entire time to get things his way – and even though he was often not successful in his lifetime – for example, he died four years before the director’s cut of Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid was released.  In the end, Sam’s films are considered among the greatest of our time, which would no doubt please him were he still alive today – but he would be disappointed that he personally is remembered as little but an unstable drug addled sociopath.  To quote a line from Cable Hogue in Sam’s favorite movie: “Dyin’ ain’t so bad.  It's not knowin’ what they’re gonna say about you.”

Shortly after Sam’s death, friends and family got together to celebrate Sam's life.  Kris Kristofferson performed "Sam’s Song," summing up the spirit of the man better than any eulogy could have.

I said, “Willie old buddy, please tell me again
The reason we keep goin’ on.”
He said, “There’s no harder words to say over a friend
Than they done you so righteously wrong.
They stopped you from singing your song.”

As Sam once prophetically stated, "The end of a picture is always an end of a life" (Fitzpatrick).


bulletCarroll, E. Jean.  “Last of the Desperados: Dueling with Sam Peckinpah”.  Rocky Mountain Magazine, Mar. 1982.  23 Nov. 2006 <www.ejeanlive.com/peck.htm>.
bulletFitzpatrick, Drew. "The End of a Picture Is Always an End of a Life: The Blood and Guts of Sam Peckinpah".  26 Nov. 2006 <www.fringeunderground.com/peckinpah.html>.
bulletKerstein, Benjamin. “The Last Man: An Epitaph for Sam Peckinpah”.  Senses of Cinema, 2006.  23 Nov. 2006 <www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/06/40/sam-peckinpah.html>.
bullet“Mini Biography of Sam Peckinpah”.  Internet Movie Database.  23 Nov. 2006 <www.imdb.com/name/nm0001603/bio>.
bulletMurry, Gabrielle.  “Sam Peckinpah”.  Senses of Cinema, May 2002.  23 Nov. 2006 <www.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/peckinpah.html>.
bulletThurman, Tom, Director.  “Sam Peckinpah's West: Legacy of a Hollywood Renegade”.  From The Wild Bunch - The Original Director's Cut Two-Disc Special Edition (1969).  Warner Home Video 2005.

Solaris (1961), Solyaris [Солярис] (1972), Solaris (2002)

A part of the old tradition of science fiction as a way to deal with the philosophy of space exploration rather than merely the way to showcase new technologies, Stanislaw Lem’s wit is too cruel, his science too prominent and his ideas too analytical to fit easily into a publishing niche devoted to fairy-tale adventures and astronaut yarns.  He frequently denounces popular sci-fi as trivial pulp produced by mental weaklings - a whore prostituting itself "contrary to its dreams and hopes."  Lem develops his own ideas to their logical extreme: drugs so convincing that reality disappears or computers too intelligent to be of any use to mankind (Wolf).

Lem's Solaris is a planet occupying a twin-sun system; it has somehow, impossibly, achieved a stable orbit - apparently through its own constant effort.  Solaris has been studied by humans for more than a century and the consensus is that it is alive, conscious and aware that it is being observed.  Writing at a time when the conquest of space was a "race", Lem sees it as a testimony to human arrogance that most humans want to spread human conceits rather than have contact with other forms of life be a way to improve our own (Newall).  Solaris is Lem’s attempt to illustrate this central idea.

The book, written in 1961 in Lem’s native Polish, has never been directly translated into English - instead, it emerged from an abridged French version.  Main characters are a psychologist, Kelvin, his dead wife, Rheya, and scientists Snow (old and drinking at the outset), Sartorius (a recluse), and the dead Giberian.  The black, purple and red planet is itself a prominent character.

According to Lem, "I never sat down at my writing desk with a complete plan ...  The last chapter of Solaris was written after a year's break.  I had to put [it] away ... since I did not know what to do with my hero.  Today I cannot even recall why I was unable to finish it for such a long time...  I recall only that the first part was written in one spurt, fluently and with ease, while the second was finished after a long time" (Lem).

Lem did not like either of the movie versions of his book.  He feels his book’s ending suggests that Kelvin expected to find something astonishing in the universe.  He feels Tarkovsky instead creates a vision of an unpleasant cosmos and Soderbergh’s ambitious, atmospheric attempt gives a displeasing prominence to love.  He says contemptuously, "The book is entitled Solaris and not Love in Outer Space" (Lem).

But Lem’s stories are about humanity - whereas movies are about characters...

Tarkovsky’s vision of Lem’s work first appeared in 1972.  It has as characters Kelvin, his dead wife, Hari (or Harey), and scientists Snaut, Sartorius and the dead Giberian.  It also adds parents and an aunt for Kelvin and changes the apparition characters.  (Okay, some of those changes I can see - the first apparition to appear in the book is a "giant Negress... wearing nothing but a yellow skirt of plaited straw; her enormous breasts swing freely and her black arms ...as thick as thighs.")

In the movie is a dwarf.  When Kelvin and Snow talk, Snow says the "visitors" represent a person’s hidden lust.  (That makes scientists a strange lot, indeed.)  In the book, Sartorius has a little girl with a straw hat as a visitor (implying he is a pædophile?) but in the film it is Gilbarian who has the girl as a visitor.  In the movie, Snaut's visitor is not sexual, but violent - it injures his hand frequently.  It is small and remains hidden - the dwarf? - it could be sexual, but mainly comes across as creepy.  (Does Snaut fear dwarves?  And what do the pictures of children on his wall mean?)  The other scientists think Kelvin is lucky to have a lovely visitor.  (They give the term "geeky" a whole new meaning.)

The planet Solaris, in Tarkovsky’s version, is a yellow gaseous giant rather than a purple-black gelatinous ocean.  Further, Lem says that his Kelvin decides to stay on the planet without any real hope while Tarkovsky’s Kelvin has some kind of island appear on which there is a hut.  "And when I hear about the hut and the island I'm beside myself with irritation...  This is just some emotional gravy into which Tarkovsky has submerged his heroes, not to mention that he has completely amputated the scientific landscape and in its place introduced so much of the weirdness I cannot stand" (Lem).  Lem says he wanted to create a vision of a human encounter with a living, sentient being that is ineffable and cannot be reduced to human concepts, ideas or images - a difficult concept to commit to film, indeed.

A key divergence between the novel and Tarkovsky’s version is the fact that in the book Kelvin does not journey to the surface of Solaris - he doesn’t need to because the planet can communicate at a distance.  In the film, Solaris only serves as anonymous backdrop, yet the novel discusses at great length the mysterious phenomena occurring on the surface and humans’ futile attempts to understand them.  Admittedly, Lem's highly philosophical writing would be a bit tricky to precisely capture in a Hollywood film (Wikipedia).

The 2002 film version of Solaris has as characters Kelvin, Rheya, and scientists Gordon (a black female who replaces Sartorius), Snow, the dead Giberian, and introduces Gibarian’s young son.  Soderburgh himself said that, in his opinion, his version is "a combination of 2001 and Last Tango in Paris."  In his reworking of this cult classic, Solaris is only under assessment as a possible source of energy; there are no lengthy scientific digressions to set the scene - and this is the first of a great many departures (Newall).

In the book, Rheya chooses to be annihilated because she wishes to shield Kelvin, the man she truly loves, from being studied by the planet, which is using her as an instrument to get inside Kelvin’s emotions.  Her demise takes place before Kelvin realises it is happening - she has the help of one of Space Stations' residents.  The Soderbergh movie has a different, supposedly more optimistic, finale in keeping with the American ideal for science fiction films - they must either end happily or with a catastrophe - there doesn’t seem to be much of a viable alternative.

The scientist Snow speaks words to Kelvin that could just as validly be spoken about America’s position in the Middle East today, "We are humanitarian and chivalrous; we don’t want to enslave other races, we simply want to bequeath them our values and take over their heritage in exchange" (Newall).

Are the apparitions fully human?  Even if they aren’t, do they have rights?  Is killing one murder?  Rheya, for example, is formed from Kelvin's memories - and some of his memories appear to be inaccurate.  (She finds that her memories have content but not context.)  Rheya says, at one point, "Don't you see?  I came from your memory of her.  That's the problem - I'm not a whole person.  In your memory you get to control everything, so even if you remember something wrong I am predetermined to carry it out..."  Rather than this being a comment on a supposed failure by Solaris to achieve a perfect copy, it speaks of the imperfections of the crew’s conceptions - it is they who fall short, not the apparitions (Newall).

Snow is eventually revealed to be an apparition himself, having killed the real Snow by accident.  (This incident does not occur at all in the book.)  Gordon just wants to be rid of her visitor - it is one who makes her uncomfortable - and, despite being a scientist sent to Solaris to study it, she seems to have little desire to understand how the planet is able to sustain these apparitions.

Soderbergh admits that his intent from the first was to tell a love story - his most significant deviation from the novel - and that is exactly what he did.  As a matter of fact, Lem says in the novel that the age-old idea that life can end while love lives on is not only wrong, it is useless and unfunny.  Soderbergh gives Kelvin another chance to love - though he may, in fact, already be dead.  To Soderbergh, love can live on after death.

Soderbergh’s version of Solaris was selected to be launched into space in 2003 by Team Encounter.

Solaris was translated into French, then abridged, then retranslated into English, then reworked as a screenplay, then sent through the Hollywood development process and served up as a congenial fairy tale.  Oddly, of his huge body of work, this is the novel by which Lem is most known in America.  This prolific author has written about all kinds of fantastic inventions - robots; surveillance operations; matchmaking devices; governance by drugs and by computers; terrorism by laughter and by potions that make you hiccup without stopping.  His stories involve accidents, malfunctions, misinterpretations, mistakes of perception, and dogmatic blindness.  A person encounters a system, and the results of the encounter reveal the limits of both.  Now, 46 years after its publication, Lem's book has gotten away from him, like some small mechanism in a wayward machine (Wolf).


bulletLem, Stanislav.  "The Solaris Station" and "Interview".  Kiosk 8 Dec. 2002.  10 Feb. 2007 <http://www.lem.pl/cyberiadinfo/english/main.htm>.
bullet____________.  Solaris.  New York: Harcourt, 1961.
bulletNewall, Paul.  "Soderbergh's Solaris (2005)".  The Galilean Library Manuscripts.  12 Feb. 2006 <http://www.galilean-library.org/solaris.html>.
bulletSolaris.  Dir. Stephen Soderbergh.  2002.  DVD.  20th Century Fox Home Entertainment, 2003.
bulletSolyaris (Solaris).  Dir. Andrei Tarkovsky.  1972.  The Centurion Collection, 2002.
bulletWikipedia. "Solaris (2002 film)" Wikipedia, the Free Encyclopedia 7 Feb. 2007.  11 Feb. 2007 <http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solaris_%282002_film%29>.
bulletWolf, Gary. "Solaris, Rediscovered".  Wired 10:12 Dec. 2002.  12 Feb. 2007 < http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/10.12/solaris.html>.

Donnie Darko (2001)

The thing that struck me most when I first saw this movie was, oddly enough, J R R Tolkien’s contention that "cellar door" is the most beautiful phrase in the English language.  That may be his opinion, but for myself, I would vote for "fresh fish" - although "Hoboken Citadel", "mellifluous lullaby", "fundamental conundrum", and "titillating tintinnabulation" aren’t bad.  An alternate account of Tolkien’s oft-quoted comment suggests that "cellar door" is a mispronunciation of the French words C'est de l'or, which can be translated as "It is gold".  It’s hard to determine where these kinds of rumours get started.

Online forum posters’ opinions to the contrary, I’d have to say that this is one of those movies you should only see once, because it doesn’t bear up under an onslaught of rational thought.  To just see it once, you can leave the theatre puzzled, thinking it all must make deep sense so you obviously just missed some important clue.  But to see it again and again shows you that there’s a lot of gibberish involved masquerading as physics - or rather metaphysics.  This is unfortunate, because some of the problems could have been fairly easily fixed with just a little bit more forethought.

Luckily, I accidentally bought the version released in theatres, not the director’s cut - the latter version is one which fairly universally seems considered to have gone downhill.  The director included with the theatrical version DVD a silly attempt to come up with a philosophy of time.  It reads like he wrote it under the influence of pyramids and crystals and is best ignored.  But in the director’s cut, pages of this drivel are superimposed at the front of each section and read to you.  It’s no wonder director Richard Kelly seems to be sinking without ripples after what was considered a promising beginning.

Very well.  So how did he get as far as he did?  What does he seem to do right?

Foremost, the casting is excellent.  Jason Schwartzman was first signed up to play Donnie Darko.  He was excellent in Shopgirl, so he probably could have pulled it off, but he is unlikely to have done a better job than Jake Gyllenhaal.  Beth Grant as the pathetic, self-righteous Kitty Farmer is also excellent.  The other characters are adequate or better and all of them worked for the minimum to help this new filmmaker get started.  Sam Raimi was nice enough to let Kelly show bits of Evil Dead free of charge.  Drew Barrymore was able to get him $4 million in funding to cover the special effects.  Cinematographer Steven Poster called in "20 years of favors" from his career in the film industry to help get the movie made.  Sadly, all of their generosity may prove to have ultimately been wasted in terms of launching a new director or screenwriter, though the movie’s popularity in Europe and its DVD sales at least ensure its profitability.

Director Kelly admits he made a little in product placement fees from Blockbuster.  Each of Donnie parents is shown in the movie reading a Stephen King novel (It and Tommyknockers) - but probably that is just because King is one of Kelly’s favorite authors.

I suppose you could call this a "coming of age" movie - when Donnie is hypnotised, it seems all he can think of is sex.  He calls his mother a bitch to her face and she seems to take it well, so I guess you could say his parents are progressive.  The kids are all pretty horrible to each other and sex is implied, so Kelly definitely didn’t aim his movie at the Disney crowd.  Yet the reality is stylized - the main character’s name, "Donnie Darko," Is a good example.  In case you didn’t notice that that is a good superhero’s name, the director has Donnie’s girlfriend, Gretchen, point it out for you.  The plot line also toys with the idea of predestination and free will.  It seems to take the existence of god as a given, which always puts me off.  Also, I felt the director carried the motifs (planes, bunnies, unicorns, various references to time) way too far.  Altogether, I was left with the feeling that I was watching a movie aimed at teens, rather than adults - after all, young people are said to especially connect with its expression of teen angst.  Maybe that’s what the director intended.

His trick is no treat

My favorite lines are: "What are feces?"  "Baby mice."  "A-w-w-w." and "If you feel the need to vomit up there, just swallow it."  This should tell you that there were very few good lines.  I also liked the mongrel as the school mascot.

Since Donnie Darko, Richard Kelly has written the screenplay for Tony Scott's Domino, a film on many of 2005’s "Ten Worst" lists.  The "director's cut" of Donnie Darko was also released in 2005.  Apparently Kelly did the right thing the first time by accident because the best qualities of his film, its ambiguity, mystery, and creepy playfulness, were eliminated by Kelly’s laborious attempt to spell out a silly time travel mythology.  If the director's cut had been the original version of the movie, it would never have become a cult classic.  Then Kelly’s next movie was Southland Tales (2006), which one reviewer called a "mixed up, confusing story that leads absolutely nowhere."

The Philosophy of Time Travel (supposedly written by Grandma Death after she decides to stop being a nun) doesn't make the slightest sense from the standpoint of even a remotely hypothetical sci-fi physics.  This book lays out the ground rules for the fictional physics of Tangent Universes.  In order to accept the plot with a straight face you have to suspend disbelief in the film’s metaphysics.  I was unfortunately unable to do this - there are just too many loose ends.  For example, a jet engine comes from "nowhere" on 2 October which causes the formation of a Tangent Universe which will end in 28 days.  In the Tangent Universe on 30 October - 28 days later - Donnie sends a jet engine back in time to the primary universe.  It arrives on 2 October so that the original engine would have "come from somewhere" and the universe is therefore saved.  Of course - it all makes sense now.

In the end, rather than being a movie that makes you think, it instead is one of those movies that it’s best not to think too much about.

He’s thinking too much.
Source: <stainlesssteelrat.net>

Donnie Darko has a lot of dark scenes and utilizes many quick cuts.  The camera rotates 90°when Donnie gets out of the school bus - a clever enough idea, I suppose, to show how disorienting school can be.  Then, the camera makes a complete circle after he has sex for the first time at his party - a little too obvious in that instance.  There is a lot of foreshadowing (some painfully obvious) and several comic-book-type gimmicky effects are used (like a cloud tunnel - Kelly says this was always meant to be a comic book-type fantasy).  Apparently Kelly was inspired by an urban legend of someone being crushed in bed by a chunk of ice falling from an airplane.  In 2004, a chunk of ice did indeed fall from an airplane and landed in a young girl’s bed - but she wasn’t at home at the time (web.mit.edu).  Maybe a rabbit named Frank waked her?

Shrek Look-alike

Vasiliy Shandybin, a politician who heads the new Communist party of modern Russia, is suing DreamWorks for an undisclosed sum for using his image while creating Shrek.  Shandybin has put a large Shrek photo in his office in the Russian Parlaiment (the Duma), which he shows it to every visitor.  He explains how the Imperialistic USA moviemakers from Hollywood have abuse his right tor privacy.   His supporters in Russia are indignant at the fact that their leader's photo is being used in a cartoon.  They feel that such use instills a comic image of the famous politician among youngsters.

“I demand to stop all the capitalistic offending occurring worldwide,” says Shandibin.

Source: englishrussia.com

Of course it's possible Shandybin's features were Photoshopped onto the poster...

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